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What in the Name of Panax Are Those Other “Ginsengs”
What in the Name of Panax Are Those Other "Ginsengs"

The herbal marketplace has been subjected frequently to a variety of strategies calculated to promote product sales, rather than to advance the science and understanding of medicinal plants and their appropriate applications. In some particularly egregious cases, the appellation "ginseng" has been abused by uninformed or even unscrupulous peddlers of herbal preparations, who clearly seek to cash in on the reputation of the legendary Asian root.

Ginseng, or, in Chinese, ren-shen, has been translated roughly as "man-root." Fulder states that the Chinese characters for ginseng, both the common name and specific epithet for Asian or Oriental ginseng, represent ideas rather than sounds.1Ren embraces multiple concepts, including "the spirit of man or the shape and dimensions of man. Shen, Sêng, or sang means root, but also a 'crystallization of the essence of the earth'." Hu in her 1976 review explained, "Sêng is . . . a term used by Chinese medicinal plant collectors for all fleshy [rootstocks] used as tonic."2 She also listed 22 species of Sêng-producing plants from 12 genera in seven plant families of the Dicotyledoneae from Volume 1 of the Chinese Materia Medica. In a subsequent letter to botanist and author Steven Foster,3 Hu further expanded her list of Sêngs to 62 species in 40 genera of 20 families. Only products derived from Panax species are properly termed gin-seng. Unfortunately, Siegel, in his infamous article4 referring to a supposed Ginseng Abuse Syndrome,5 stated erroneously that "the term 'ginseng' can refer to any of 22 related plants."

The Ginsengs

The generic name Panax is derived from the Greek pan, meaning all, and akos, meaning remedy; panacea, meaning cure-all, derives directly from the Greek panakeia.

American ginseng (P. quinquefolius* L., Araliaceae) and dwarf or groundnut (peanut) ginseng (P. trifolius* L.) are native to North America. Asian ginseng� was first named Panax schin-seng T. Nees in 1833 by T.F.L. Nees van Esenbeck. In 1842, Carl Anton Meyer renamed the species Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer. Duke noted, "There are only about a dozen species of Panax in the world," and listed nine.6

The most commercially important species of ginseng, after P. ginseng and P. quinquefolius, is P. notoginseng (Burkill) F.H. Chen ex C.Y. Wu & K.M. Feng, commonly called Tienchi or Sanchi ginseng (in Chinese pinyin, tien qi or san qi). This species was formerly referred to as P. pseudoginseng Wall. var. notoginseng (Burkill) G. Hoo & C.J. Tseng. References to at least seven additional Panax taxa may be found, which were formerly designated as varieties or subspecies of P. pseudoginseng Wall.7

Wen and Zimmer used DNA analysis to review the phylogenetic (i.e., evolutionary development) relationships among Panax species and settled upon 12.7 Wen later modified this list to 11 species and one variety, adding to her original list P. vietnamensis Ha & Grushv.,8 which was discovered in 1973, and P. bipinnatifidus Seem. var. angustifolius (Burkill) J. Wen, and eliminating P. omeiensis J. Wen, and P. sinensis J. Wen (see Table 1).9

The Impostors

The most prominent pretender to the mantle of "ginseng" is so-called "Siberian ginseng," now known by the standardized common name of eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus (Rupr. & Maxim.) Maxim.).� Also a member of the family Araliaceae, as are the Panax species, the root of this plant is claimed to exert similar effects on the body.10 In addition to the more appropriate common designation of eleuthero (generally preferred by the botanically knowledgeable), the plant has also been referred to as "Russian," "spiny," or "eleuthero ginseng," as well as eleutherococcus, prickly or spiny eleutherococc, touch-me-not, devil's bush, Ussurian thorny pepperbush, taiga, and wild pepper. The term Manchurian ginseng may also relate to eleuthero. Eleutherococcus gracilistylus (W.W. Sm.) S.Y. Hu has also been termed "prickly ginseng."

Eleuthero is not a "Sêng-producing" plant since it has a woody, not fleshy, rootstock. Further, as noted earlier, only roots of Panax species may legitimately be termed "ginseng," as now required by recent legislation in the United States, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.11,12 Hu3 states that use of the appellation "Siberian ginseng," which first appeared associated with eleuthero imported into the United States in the 1970s, was a marketing stratagem intended to capitalize on the popularity of traditional ginseng.13 It was subsequently adopted as an accepted common name in commerce by the now-defunct Herb Trade Association in the late 1970s,14 and then dropped by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) in favor of the now-preferred term eleuthero in AHPA's Herbs of Commerce,15 its first attempt to standardize common names for popular herbs in the U.S. market. This publication, superceded in 2000 by a second revised and expanded edition,16 was adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the official standard for common names for commercial herb products.17 It is possible that the second volume will also be so recognized.

The term "ginseng" has been further attached to a bewildering array of qualifications � national, geographic, color, among others � for a stunning variety of non-araliaceous species (see Table 2).

A somewhat common component of "multi-ginseng" formulations is suma (Hebanthe eriantha (Poir.) Pederson, syn. Pfaffia paniculata (Mart.) Kuntze, Amaranthaceae), which is also called "Brazilian" or "South American ginseng." Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal), Solanaceae) has been sold as "Indian" or "Ayurvedic ginseng." The Indian herb jeevani (Trichopus zeylanicus Gaert., Dioscoreaceae) has also been referred to as "Indian ginseng."18 Because of use of its roots to promote stamina and fertility, the recently popularized maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp., Brassicaceae) is referred to as "Peruvian ginseng" or "Ginseng of the Andes."19 And in the 1970s, canaigre or tanner's dock (Rumex hymenosepalus Torr., Polygonaceae) was advanced as "wild red American ginseng" or "wild red desert ginseng."20

An advanced search on <> in early December 2002 for "Southern ginseng" resulted in 183 commercial and educational sites that discuss or market gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Thunb.) Makino, Cucurbitaceae), called jiao gu lan in Chinese pinyin, as "Southern ginseng" � a term that has also been applied to P. notoginseng. This perennial Oriental liana contains ginsenosides.8 G. pentaphyllum is the only non-Panax species known to contain these compounds. Pseudostellaria (Pseudostellaria heterophylla (Miq.) Pax, Caryophyllaceae) has been sold as "prince's" or "lesser ginseng."21 Fulder identifies "bastard ginseng" as Campanunoea pilosule,1 although it should be given as Campanumoea pilosula Franch., Campanulaceae. Foster identifies this species by its basionym (Codonopsis pilosula (Franch.) Nannf., Campanulaceae).22

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michx., Berberidaceae) has been offered as both "blue" and "yellow ginseng."23 Other species, such as adenophora (Adenophora triphylla (Thunb. ex Murray) A. DC., Campanulaceae), glehnia (Glehnia littoralis F. Schmidt ex Miq., Apiaceae), fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum Thunb., Polygonaceae), Chinese salvia (Salvia miltiorrhiza Bunge, Lamiaceae), and species in the genus Scrophularia, Scrophulariaceae, have reportedly also been sold as "ginseng."21 Fong also reports that even the peel of tangerine (Citrus reticulata Blanco, Rutaceae) has been sold as "ginseng"!21

Toward the end of 1999, a Malaysian company introduced "Malaysian ginseng" to Singapore, the Middle East, and Europe. An internet document stated, "Ginseng is more well-known worldwide, as such we introduced Tongkat Ali as a type of root that has the [same] nutritional value as ginseng."24 Apparently, tongkat ali (which translates to "Ali's staff or walking stick") is a generic term for plants used as aphrodisiacs and tonics in Malaysia.25 Foster has identified a number of prominent source plants for tongkat ali including, Eurycoma longifolia Jack, Simarubaceae; Grewis umbellata Roxb., Tiliaceae; Polyalthia bullata King, Annonaceae; and Smilax calophylla Wall., Liliaceae or Smilaxaceae,25 but further research indicates the first species in this list of prospects is involved in the commercial venture.

The herbal community is working to achieve greater credibility and respect for herbs and phytomedicines, and many healthcare professionals are responding to public demand that they integrate herbal medicines into their clinical practices. To support these laudable efforts, the information on product labels, in promotional materials, and in scientific and popular literature must be accurate in every respect. Despite the fact that the rules governing the attribution of common names to herbs is not as well-codified as the use of scientific Latin binomials, there are accepted standards for nomenclature adopted by industry and the government to ensure accuracy and reduce confusion. Thus, the most basic obligation to name products accurately is owed to consumers as well as to health practitioners, regulators, academicians, and researchers of all interests. While taxonomists delve further in the intricacies of DNA structure to better organize human understanding of the relationships among plant species, manufacturers, healthcare professionals, and the general public should, at the very least, be sure they know what, exactly, is being sold and consumed. The resulting credibility and respect, based upon the facts rather than ignorant or inaccurate promotional claims, are vitally important to the future of herbal medicine, and the marketplace.

Dennis V. C. Awang, Ph.D., F.C.I.C, is president of MediPlant Consulting Inc., based in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada.

* Linnaeus used the neuter forms quinquefolium and triflolium for these specific epithets, but Panax is masculine, requiring the 'ius' ending. In the arcane logic of taxonomic nomenclature, the Latin binomials Panax quinquefolius and P. trifolius are perfectly acceptable, even though the specific epithets, meaning "five-leafed" and "three-leafed," respectively, are descriptively inaccurate and, as such, not a sensible basis for distinguishing species. Mature leaves of almost all Panax species (as well those of eleuthero) are compound and composed of five leaflets, the three terminal ones being invariably larger than the other two. Duke has published an illustration depicting the leaf of P. notoginseng bearing seven leaflets.6

� Also called Chinese, Korean (Red and White), Kirin, and (formerly) Tartary ginseng.

� First described in 1856 by F.J. Ruprecht and K.J. Maximowicz.


1. Fulder S. The Book of Ginseng. Rochester (VT): Healing Arts Press; 1993. p. 89.

2. Hu SY. The genus Panax (ginseng) in Chinese medicine. Econ Botany 1976;30:11-28.

3. Hu SY. 1979 March 20. Letter to S Foster.

4. Siegel RK. Ginseng abuse syndrome. JAMA 1979;241:1614-5.

5. Blumenthal M. Debunking the "Ginseng Abuse Syndrome." Whole Foods 1991 March:89-91.

6. Duke JA. Ginseng: A Concise Handbook. Algonac (MI): Reference Publications, Inc.; 1989. p. 14-7.

7. Wen J, Zimmer EA. Phylogeny and biogeography of Panax L. (the ginseng genus, Araliaceae): Inferences from ITS sequences of nuclear ribosomal DNA. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 1996;6(2):167-77.

8. Duc NM, Nham NT, Kasai R, Ito A, Yamasaki K, Tanaka O. Saponins from Vietnamese Ginseng. Panax vietnamensis HA et GRUSHV. Collected in Central Vietnam. I. Chem Pharm Bull 1993;41(11):2010-4.

9. Wen J. Species diversity, nomenclature, phylogeny, biogeography, and classification of the ginseng genus (Panax L., Araliaceae). In: Pjnja ZK, editor. Utilization of biotechnological, genetic and cultural approaches for North American and Asian ginseng improvement. Proceedings of the International Ginseng Workshop. Vancouver, Canada: Simon Fraser University Press; 2001. p. 67-88.

10. Awang DVC. Eleuthero. Can Pharm J 1996;129(8):52-4.

11. Blumenthal M. Farm bill bans use of name "Ginseng" on non-Panax species: "Siberian Ginseng" no longer allowed as commercial term. HerbalGram 2002;56:54-5.

12. 107th Congress. Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. 107-171. <>.

13. Foster S, Yue C. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Rochester (VT): Healing Arts Press; 1992. p. 74.

14. Blumenthal M. Personal communication, 2003 January 22.

15. Foster S. Herbs of Commerce. Austin, TX: American Herbal Products Association, 1992.

16. McGuffin M, Kartesz JT, Leung AY, Tucker AO. Herbs of Commerce. 2nd edition. Silver Spring (MD): American Herbal Products Association, 2000.

17. 21 CFR ?101.4(h)

18. Jayaraman KS. 'Indian ginseng' brings royalties for tribe. Nature 1996;381:182.

19. Rea J. Raices andinas: maca. In: Bermejo H, Lon JE, editors. Cultivos marginados, otra perspectiva de 1492. Rome: FAO; 1992. p. 163-6.

20. Blumenthal M. 1993 November 9. Memo to D Awang, HHS Fong, NR Farnsworth.

21. Fong HHS. 1996 November 4. Personal communication.

22. Foster S. 1997 January 29. Personal communication.

23. Farnsworth NR. NAPRALERT. University of Illinois at Chicago. 1996.

24. Anonymous. Malaysian co. promotes local "ginseng" overseas. Asia Pulse via COMTEX. 1999. Document ID: FD 19991115660000126.

25. Burkhill IH. A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, 2 vols. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives; 1966.

26. Foster S. 1999 December 27. Personal communication.